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Looking back: The amazing story of the Erector Set, American Flyer trains and more

By Chuck Woodbury
ROADSIDE JOURNAL
Older readers of RVtravel.com, especially male readers, will likely remember with great fondness one of the most popular toys of their childhood, the Erector Set.

It was built by the A.C. Gilbert Company, which in its beginnings manufactured magic kits. Its founder, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, was, among other things, an accomplished athlete who won an Olympics gold medal. One of his many other claims to fame was as the owner of the sixth licensed radio station in America.

Erector Sets were made of steel, with real nuts and bolts, unlike today’s toys which are mostly made of plastic.

“Hello Boys! Make lots of toys!” was the company’s motto.

The company also made chemistry sets. The growth of the chemical industry in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s was attributed to the huge popularity of the chemistry sets boys had owned as children.

The Gilbert Microscope was also hugely popular. Each device came with a specimen – a housefly from Gilbert’s milk company that supplied milk at lunchtime to his employees.

Gilbert Chemistry Set

And what young boy of the era did not either own a Gilbert-made American Flyer toy electric train or want one?

This 29-minute video is the fascinating story of Arthur Gilbert and his company’s many products. It traces the company’s history from its humble beginnings to its heyday and then to its eventual demise due to sociological changes including the increased popularity of cheap, plastic toys.

As a child did you own an Erector Set, American Flyer train or another A.C. Gilbert toy? Please leave a comment.

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Rob
6 months ago

I no longer have my erector set. My American Flyer trains are now bringing much happiness to my grandson. A C Gilbert toys were both educational and fun!

Marie
9 months ago

Wow, thanks for the memories! My brother was the lucky one to get the Erector set and trains because I was a “girl”…but I would help (or sneak them out and play when he wasn’t home!) Love the video, but what a sad ending to his legacy. I have often thought that the children of today are missing out on the quality of yesterday’s toys of imagination. I know they are entering a different world, but not all are wanting to be “computer engineers”, there is a need for other skill sets too. Besides, we have learned the hard way, “plastic” is not the answer we thought it was…for many reasons! I would love to find an old fashioned Erector set for my grandchildren…

On another note…I like you, love postcards, and also “collect and send them”! I may be a photographer, but there’s nothing like a good ole’ postcard in the mail, is there? 😉

Bret
9 months ago

Yes, had a really good Erector set and Chemistry set then became an engineer. Most of my train stuff was Lionel though.

Christine Burgess
9 months ago

We had an erector set that looked just like the one pictured. Between the 4 of us kids (,2 boys and 2 girls by the way) it was well used. I really wish that they did still make toys like this fun and educational. Our train may have been the American Flyer but not sure on that one.

Brian Clinkenbeard
9 months ago

Loved my Erector set and still have mine although missing a few pieces.

Gary Reed
9 months ago

I still have my original American Flyer train set and original car boxes and the train set box from 1949. It still runs along with other American Flyer trains I have aquired over the years. We have a large train room /train layout in our downstairs where my wife and I run trains and build dioramas on the layout.
Our entire downstairs area is devoted to the trains.
Growing up I had the Gilbert Erector and Chemistry sets. I remember them well as they provided many hours of fun during those cold snowy winter days in the suburbs of Chicago.

Drew
9 months ago

I had a big Erector set- a lot like the one pictured. It gave me days and days of fun. There was almost no limit to the things you could build. Later on, my Dad bought me a more powerful motor that ran on a.c. After my first Grandson was born I tried to find one and had no luck. I also was lucky to have had a big n-guage train set. I got huge amounts of track and trestle pieces with it. I think todays kids are really missing out.

JohnZ
9 months ago

My parents couldn’t afford many frills, so when my grandmother gave my brother and me an Erector set for Christmas (late ’50s or early ’60s), we were in absolute toy heaven. We used that kit for years until finally lost every nut. Thanks for the memories.

Barefoot Bill
9 months ago

Enjoyed the video. Growing up in the 50s, I had an Erector set, microscope and chemistry set. Had an electric train, but not American Flyer.

Judith Castle
9 months ago

Very interesting film. There were 3 girls in my family. My older sister (by 6 years) scored the erector set, microscope and chemistry sets before I was deemed “old enough” to use such things. I remember them well. She went on to become the only girl enrolled in Chemical Engineering at WV University in 1957, whereas I stuck happily to my dolls and studied Home Economics! I loved visiting my cousin who had a big train set in the basement. I preferred playing with him and the trains to playing dolls with his sister. Happy memories.

Steve Barnes, Kamloops, BC
9 months ago

GREAT VIDEO! If you are old enough to have had real toys, save the video until you can spare the 29 minutes. Worth your time and reminiscence.

Gary Nichols
9 months ago

I had the Erector set, the microscope, the chemistry set., and the train – all in the 50’s. And I loved them all, especially the Erector set, my very favorite toy from my childhood.

Linda
9 months ago

Brilliant! Have too many flies? Sell ’em as specimens LOL. On a serious note, this was a fascinating video to watch. I am pretty sure the trains and microscopes we had were cheap ones. We were not wealthy enough to have expensive toys but it’s ok. We had a good life.

Bob Steele
9 months ago

My dad had an erector set as a boy (he was born in 1924) and he passed it along to me (born in 1947) when I was a young boy. I really enjoyed building with it. The set had an electric motor but it destroyed TV reception in the neighborhood when I ran it. So my dad actually wrote to the A.C. Gilbert company and they exchanged that motor for a new one that didn’t cause interference problems. I thought that was pretty nice of them.

Bob Kassl
9 months ago

Boy did this bring back memories! I had both a Gilbert Chemistry Set Lab and an Erector Set. That Chemistry set led me to a 35 year career in medical laboratory science. Unfortunately I never became a structural engineer because of my Erector Set.

Gary L Fillion
9 months ago

I had both the erector set and microscope set, the big one with the triple fold case! They both reinforced my interest in science and math and helped me to become a mech. Engr!

Marc Dupont
9 months ago

I no longer have my Erector Set but my house was built by A.C. Gilbert in 1955 and live next to what was his hunting preserve.

Winnebago Bob
9 months ago

I still have my American Flyer Train set that I received for Christmas. I wore out my first erector set, but still have it and the second one. I was going to give them to the grandkids, but alas they have no interest in imaging things.

noel leckness
9 months ago

About 20 years ago, I bought an erector set for my son, during the day after Christmas sale. I couldn’t get him interested and still have the pristine, never been used (though opened) set in a yellow plastic toolkit type container. Thinking my grandkids now. My son is now a mechanical engineer…go figure.

noel leckness
9 months ago
Reply to  noel leckness

Maybe it was longer ago…I’m old.

Steve Tolbert
9 months ago

I still have my Gilbert microscope set and chemistry set that I received in the early 60s.